The American Church is pretty anxious about the failure to reach young adults with the Gospel. As I enter my fourth year as University Chaplain at the University of Indianapolis, I have just a few reflections on my rather successful, but unremarkable ministry.
Our United Methodist-related university is very supportive of our work in campus ministry, but our student body is not any more Christian than the state universities in Indiana. I like it that way. I do ministry among regular college students. And God is doing something among those students.
I hope that my reflections, which are quite personal, will be helpful to some pastors out there who are trying to serve these everyday college students well.
I try very hard to not be cool. This isn't particularly difficult for me. I was born "not cool" and I will probably retire even less cool than I am now. And I think my students would rather not see me with bleached hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and screaming guitar. I think they want me to speak slowly, listen carefully, and resist the temptation to shout platitudes and oversimplify the complexities of life and theology.
The most valuable ministry that I have done is listening to young adults talk about their dreams. I often go the extra step to put an opportunity before them that I know will form them into deeper discipleship (summer camping ministry staff, short-term missions, a seminary catalog, etc.). I eat a lot of meals with them--slowly. I ask them what they believe about complex theological concepts, and then I challenge them without trying to correct them. Not very flashy. I know you are disappointed.
I have almost completed my Ph.D in Theology from a major seminary (All But Dissertation). But I haven't won these students by brilliant teaching. I suppose I may be a slightly above average preacher. Because our campus ministry creates lots of opportunities for students to preach for the first time, I don't even preach that often anyway. I don't dazzle them with powerful lectures or even book studies on great books. Most of the bible studies that I do are really just reading a single book of the bible really slowly. We read Ephesians through a semester and Hebrews for an academic year. We are reading Romans now and will take a year for that one. We ask hard questions of the text and then together struggle with what the text might be saying and how it might be calling us to live. But I do refuse to let the simple answers offered by those on the right and the left to go unchallenged. I refuse to get anxious about those who disagree with me. I trust that if God is real then I don't need to change anyone's mind...the Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than I.
I don't preach something innovative. But my students seem to find the story I tell to be compelling. I simply talk about the power of the resurrection in everyday lives. I talk about the suffering of Jesus that was reversed by the power of the resurrection which promises a time in which all suffering will come to an end by the return of the King. I challenge them to join the story by fighting injustices across the globe and in our own city. I challenge them to witness to the truth of the Gospel without the anxiety of having to convert the whole world. The Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than them.
I challenge the places in their lives where I see inconsistencies (either with themselves or with the Gospel) and I give them confidence that our relationship is not dependent on accepting my challenges.
I've made mistakes. I've hurt a few students with things I've said these last few years. I always try to own the parts that are my fault and ask forgiveness. Others have simply not liked me. I've tried not to let those folks make me insecure about my work as a pastor.
I haven't done a whole lot that is impressive. But I have seen that my students love me and trust me. They invite me to be part of their illnesses, their successes, and the decisions that determine their futures. I thank God for this opportunity. They don't trust me because of my guitar skills or my hair style. But they do trust me to lead them toward the deepest kinds of discipleship. I imagine that 20 years from now they will not look back and see me as someone who changed their life.
I'm not suggesting that we minister from mediocrity. I hope that isn't what I am doing. I'm suggesting that really excellent ministry is done every day by compiling a series of otherwise unremarkable but terribly consistent acts of ministry and discipleship.
Here is the Good News: if I can do this rather unremarkable ministry then so can you. Nothing I have done these last three years is something that any pastor couldn't do among young adults. They are dying (spiritually, if not literally) for someone to authentically follow Jesus with transparency in close enough proximity to their lives for some of it to rub off. You can do that too. Just put the Gospel on display by serving students well
Maybe some of the young adults that have found my unremarkable ministry compelling can share some of why they have done so. Maybe they can teach us how to minister to them well. Add some comments that will help other pastors reach young adults.